What is Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) and Why it’s Important to your Startup? (also How you can Calculate it)

Just as driving with your eyes closed is dangerous to your health, so is acquiring customers without knowing what it costs you to acquire them. Both can lead to disastrous outcomes.

Whilst acquiring new customers is always something to be happy about, it doesn’t mean, however, that you should throw out common sense in how you account for your time and human resource efforts in acquiring them, typically referred to as your CAC (customer acquisition cost).

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Customer acquisition cost is the cost associated with convincing a consumer to buy your product or service, including research, marketing, and advertising costs. An important business metric, customer acquisition cost should be considered along with other data, especially the value of the customer to the company and the resulting return on investment (ROI) of acquisition. The calculation of customer valuation helps a company decide how much of its resources can be profitably spent on a particular customer.

CUSTOMER ACQUISITION COST – CONCEPT

Customer acquisition cost (CAC) is a metric that has been growing in use, along with the emergence of Internet companies and web-based advertising campaigns that can be tracked.

Traditionally, a company had to engage in shotgun style advertising and find methods to track consumers through the decision-making process.

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Today, many web-based companies can engage in highly targeted campaigns and track consumers as they progress from interested leads to long-lasting loyal customers. In this environment, the CAC metric is used by both companies and investors.

CAC, as you probably know, is the cost of convincing a potential customer to buy a product or service. In this article, we will explain the CAC metric in more detail, how you can measure it, and what steps you can take to improve it.

What the CAC Metric Means to You

As mentioned above, the CAC metric is important to two parties: companies and investors. The first party includes outside, early stage investors who use it to analyze the scalability of new Internet technology companies. They can determine a company’s profitability by looking at the difference between how much money can be extracted from customers and the costs of extracting it.

For example, in terms of the upstream oil market, if an oil supply is in an area requiring heavy infrastructure investments, the amount applied to extract the oil may be greater than its market price per barrel.

Investors view Internet-based companies through the same lens. They are concerned with the current relationship, not on future promises of improving the metric, unless they can be justified.

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The other party interested in the metric is an internal operations or marketing specialist. They use it to optimize the return on their advertising investments. In other words, if the costs to extract money from customers can be reduced, the company’s profit margin improves and it makes a larger profit.

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Then, investors are more interested in providing the company with the resources it needs, partners are more committed to growth, and the company can use the improved profit margins to pass the value to its customers for a greater market position.

CALCULATE CUSTOMER ACQUISITION COSTS ACROSS INDUSTRIES 

Measuring the Customer Acquisition Cost by industry is important for marketers in fast-growing companies. Keeping a pulse on this single metric can help prioritize spend channels, and inform overall strategic decisions that will have lasting impact on rate-of-growth.

 

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Customers are what make businesses run. Regardless if you are a free game, an enterprise software company or a product on the shelves of Walmart, your customers generate the revenue you use to run your business.

But customers aren’t free. Even Google, one of the most dominant companies of our time and a household brand name, spent $14.4B in 2015 on traffic acquisition costs. The reality is that you have to spend money to acquire customers, and the price you pay for each customer is your Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC).

Your CAC is not just what you spend on advertising! There are many hidden costs that go into customer acquisition, including:

  • Discounts and promotions
  • Publicity costs (including PR)
  • Events and conferences

In fact, some of your marketing administrative costs need to be factored into your CAC, especially if you do content marketing. With all of this it can be surprisingly difficult to determine your CAC. Still, you need to know your CAC so that you understand if the customer lifetime value (LTV) is more than you pay to acquire the customer. If it’s not then you are losing money with every customer!

Understand what is customer lifetime value (LTV)

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In this article we’ll cover how to measure your CAC and how you can use it as a weapon in building your business.

  • Part 1 — Attribution: how do you know where a customer came from?
  • Part 2 — Blending: how do you calculate CAC in a multi-channel marketing world?
  • Part 3 — Payback: how long does a customer take to pay back their CAC?
  • Part 4 — Examples: how do you calculate CAC for different businesses?

Let us get started by understanding exactly where customers come from in the first place.

Part 1. Attribution

The first step in understanding your customer acquisition costs is knowing how you acquired them! Different acquisition methods will carry different cost structures, so the better you can pinpoint where a user was acquired the easier it will be to know how much they cost.

Unfortunately, in the real world customers are rarely acquired in a single transaction. A single customer might read an article about you, see some of your ads, receive a few of your emails, and finally click on a link shared by a friend on social media. Would the customer have clicked on that social link if they hadn’t read the article? If they hadn’t gotten the email? Or seen the ad? Here is the timeline, and as you can see it’s not clear:

 

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Image : Attribution modeling — how to score each touch?

So, who gets the credit? Attribution is challenging and there is no easy answer. The good news is that there are a few common attribution models you can choose from depending on your marketing strategy.

Last Touch attribution assigns 100% of the credit for a customer acquisition to the last channel the customer touched before converting. In our above example, the social sharing channel would get 100% of the credit and the others would get none.

 

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Image : Last touch model of attribution

Distributed attribution (also known as Linear) divides up credit among all channels that touched a user. In our example, this means each of the 4 channels (ads, email, PR and social) would each get 25% of the credit for the customer.

 

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Image : Distributed model of attribution

Decaying attribution also distributed credit across channels, but assigns more credit to the last channel the customer touched than the first one. This model reflects the traditional model of marketing where the customer is more likely to convert the more they are exposed to your company.

 

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Image : Decaying model of attribution

These are just a few simple attribution strategies, there are many more. If you’d like to read about more, Google provides a comprehensive list on their support website. Many web analytics tools support attribution tracking and there are even dedicated attribution tracking services you can use to automate whatever attribution strategy you choose.

Whatever you choose, you should not expect 100% accuracy. There will always be a few customers whose decisions are influenced by factors you will never know! Tomorrow we’ll talk about how to turn your attribution strategy into a CAC calculation.

Part 2. Blending

Calculating your customer acquisition cost would be much easier if all users came from the same channel! Unfortunately, as we saw yesterday, that rarely happens and you need to have an attribution strategy in place to decide which channels are responsible for a customer.

Few companies use the “Last Touch” model, which means you are likely to spread credit out across a few different channels. That is great, we love spreading credit around! But how do you calculate your CAC when you have assigned credit to multiple channels? It’s easier than you might think.

Step 1: Determine how much each channel costs you.

For Ads this is easy, it’s just your average cost per click or impression. For PR it’s the time you spend courting the media, as well as the cost of your PR firm (amortized). For sending emails it’s more complex as it includes the time you spend writing them as well as what it might have cost to get the customer’s email address in the first place. In all cases, you should be able to determine an average cost for that channel action.

Step 2: Weighted distribution.

With your channel costs in hand, you can use the credit distribution from your model to calculate a weighted cost! Let’s say a customer touches three channels (Ads, Email, Social) and we use a linear attribution model to assign credit evenly, our CAC would be calculated as follows:

https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/800/0*R4t7h4deFmlF1qKZ.

Image : Calculating your customer acquisition costs on a weighted distribution model of attribution

There you go! You can calculate this for each customer (hard) or segment your customers into common cohorts (easier) depending on how accurate you need your CAC estimate to be. In businesses where margins are measured in pennies the CAC is usually measured at the individual customer level (e.g. mobile gaming) and in high margin businesses (e.g. enterprise software) by cohort.

There are tools and services that will do all of this for you but it’s up to you if you want to use them. Even if you do, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of what they do!

Calculate  Customer Acquisition Cost 

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Part 3. Payback

Understanding your customer acquisition cost (CAC) unlocks a lot of valuable strategic tools and decisions for you. Along with your customer lifetime value (LTV) it allows you to understand the fundamental economics (and viability) of your business.

One important analysis you should undertake with your CAC is how long it takes a customer to pay back their cost of acquisition. If a customer costs you $10 to acquire, how long is it before you earn that $10 back again? This is a critical analysis because it will tell you how much capital you need in the business to hit your customer growth goals.

For some businesses, the payback is immediate because the customer makes a product purchase that is more than their CAC. However, for many subscription and recurring revenue businesses the payback period can be very long!

An example would be easier to follow?

Good point. For example, let’s say that your CAC is $1,000 and you earn $100 per month from each customer. That means your payback period is 10 months, which is how long it takes you to earn $1,000 from that customer (assuming no churn which is a bad assumption).

Part 4. Customer Acquisition Cost Example

After discussing the theory of customer acquisition costs (CAC), it’s time to talk about reality! The real world is a confusing place, so let’s talk about some example businesses and how their CAC might be complicated by reality. Now where did I put those examples…

Example 1. Physical Goods

When selling a physical product, like basketballs, you are almost certainly going to use channel distribution partners like wholesalers and retailers. In these cases you have a choice: you can treat the channel as the customer or treat the channel as a factor in your CAC.

Most companies do the latter, especially since most wholesalers and retailers require their vendors to take on inventory risk (you need to repurchase any unsold inventory). Things get even more complex when you factor in the rate of returns, since you cannot assume a customer is “acquired” if they return the product soon after purchase!

Example 2. Enterprise Software

Enterprise software is typically sold using large teams of outbound sales people. In these companies, the majority of the customer acquisition cost is the cost of the sales person who makes the sale, and hence their commission on the sale (but not usually their salary), since it typically dwarfs marketing spend. You can choose to hide this cost by not making it part of your CAC, but that makes your CAC much less useful! For many enterprise software companies, the CAC is then a combination of marketing spend and sales commission.

Example 3. Mobile Apps

Mobile applications are distributed almost exclusively through advertising, which means the CAC is the easiest to calculate since it’s just the cost of the ads required to get a user to install the app. However, if you are using multiple different ad networks and services you will likely have different costs, so most mobile app companies measure their CAC by advertising partner and create a blended average customer acquisition cost for overall tracking.

CUSTOMER ACQUISITION COST BENCHMARK

Customer Acquisition Cost(CAC) Benchmark is measuring your CAC against your competitor’s. CAC is essential to track because it could set you apart from them in being able to bring in qualified leads. With CAC in mind, you need to know your audience, and pinpoint potential buyers who will convert without emptying the bank account.

So how can you lower your CAC? Below we identify mistakes that marketers often make when trying to acquire customers:

  • Lack of lead nurturing  

Implementing lead nurturing is critical. Cultivating an ongoing relationship with potential buyers, who are likely to convert because they are drawn to the relevant and informative content.

  • Lack of alignment with sales and marketing 

Outlining expectations and aiming for a common goal (generally, revenue), you can target the right customers while keeping CAC low.

  • Lack of focus on top of funnel 

You may be nurturing your leads, but are you effectively interacting with anonymous buyers? Providing these buyers with valuable content geared towards their needs, you’ll see higher quality leads while keeping costs down.

 IN REVIEW

Mastering your CAC is an important step in building a profitable business. The more accurate your CAC metrics, the more aggressively you can pursue growing your business.

Growth Marketer | Co-founder. Amol is Chief Growth Strategist at upGrowth. Different ways of lead generation, quick optimization tricks, and easy to implement growth hacks are his specialties. He loves to read and share his knowledge through training in free time.
August 14th , 2018

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